Book Review: Crossing the Straits, by Richard Greene

I read from time to time about the culture war we’re supposed to be engaged in. But then I think: How can you fight a culture war without a culture? It’s all very well to cite Chesterton and Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor and the mysteriously underappreciated J.F. Powers.

More Than a Museum

But culture is an ongoing enterprise, not a museum of farewells and reminiscences. It needs roots, to be sure, but the top has to grow also, or all it’s fit for is the root cellar.

Then I come upon a book of poems called Crossing the Straits, by Richard Greene, and I know that poetry, Catholic, broad and deep, still lives.

Here’s a Canadian Catholic in his forties who can take us back to the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, forward in time to the last of the Newfoundland whalers, of whom his grandfather was one, and to the vividly remembered Portuguese fishermen, of whom he can say:

Public order bore with their offenses

and the constabulary made nothing

of loud drunkenness and small affrays,

because their charities stood in balance:

at any late hour, a Portuguese crew

would genially pour out their twenty pints

to save some stranger bleeding at St. Clare’s.

That’s pints of blood he’s writing about, not porter.

Moving and True

He’s witty, this modern living Catholic poet. In the title poem, as he reflects on his fellow passengers on the Newfoundland–Nova Scotia ferry, he feels the motion of the sea and dreams of his flat in Toronto, and when he wakes he walks through lounges:

where some have sat up all night playing cards

or talking, their New Year’s revels queasy

and circumspect where the ships’ movement

began the hangovers before the drinks.

But it’s not just wit, nor is the reverence of this poet a sermonette or a piety.

He can be most moving and true in describing the trials of the early martyrs, and tough in other ways:

The lungs of Jesus are emptied of their last psalm,

and the world’s slow cramp is loosened from limb to limb.

And tough but tender in the modern martyrdom of the dedicated, self-giving farm-boy priest, and the old renouncing one of the cancer ward.

Authentic and Rare

Often in this book, out of the perfect angel silence that all true poetry can make, there is a deep and astonishing illumination:

we become the Christ who becomes our wandering

and in his peace our stillness becomes a motion,

each moment rising from a moment’s death

towards a heaven shaped from human transience.

It may be rare, as all authentic art is rare, but Catholic art — indeed art itself — still lives, sometimes in little volumes like this one.

Crossing the Straits, by Richard Greene, 2004, a volume in the St. Thomas Poetry Series, is available, and much recommended, at:

The St. Thomas Poetry Series

383 Huron Street

Toronto, Ontario

Canada M5S 2G5

Or send an email to:

© Copyright 2004 Catholic Exchange

Pavel Chichikov is a Catholic writer and photographer who lives in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Crisis, the National Catholic Register, Faith & Family Magazine, and other publications. He is also the poetry editor of Catholic Exchange, and a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing. He is the author of two books of poems.

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